Awesome foods

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Felix Sadeli sent in this list of colossal mistranslations of food names. We've already seen several of these and explained a number of them on Language Log:

Here I'll just give brief explanations for four of the droller items in Chinese and Japanese on the list.  Perhaps Language Log readers will be inspired to follow suit for some of the remaining items, especially those in other languages.

There's quite a story to this one.

huàhé gāncǎo lǎn 化核甘草欖

As printed on the label, this is impossible to translate into intelligible English.

Let's take care of rùnhóu 潤喉 first, because that's the easiest part.  It means "moisten throat", which is what the "lozenges" in the bin are supposed to do.

gāncǎo 甘草 (lit., "sweet grass", i.e., "licorice"), which is the main flavoring in the lozenge

So far, so good, but now things start to get difficult.

lǎn 欖, being a bound demi-morpheme, normally doesn't mean anything by itself; it is short for gǎnlǎn 橄欖 ("olive")

There are hundreds of disyllabic words in Sinitic languages (e.g, those for "coral", "spider", the so-called "unicorn", the so-called "phoenix", "dragonfly", "balloon lute [biwa / pipa], and "grape"), some going back two thousand or more years, of which the individual characters by themselves have no meaning.  Some of these must have arisen through dimidiation to cope with particular consonant clusters that didn't exist in Sinitic at the time of borrowing, while others may have been more or less straightforward attempts to transcribe the salient sounds of the words being borrowed.  Particularly when there are several or many different sets of characters for writing one of these disyllabic words, I strongly suspect that they have been borrowed from non-Sinitic languages.  I'm sure, for example, that such is the case with the words for "coral", "grape" and "balloon lute", all of which come from Iranian languages.  If I had world enough and time, tracing the origins of such disyllabic Sinitic words would be the consuming passion for the rest of my life, since I believe they would provide a tremendous amount of vital data about the development of Chinese language and culture.  Alas, there are other essential things to do, such as teach classes and write Language Log posts on a much wider variety of subjects concerning Chinese languages and script.

In any event, for as long as I have been studying Chinese (nearly half a century) and first learned the word for olive, I have always suspected that it was a loan word.  Consequently, I filed it away in the back of my mind as a topic to study later on when the opportunity arose.  Given that I am writing for Language Log today, I should do my best, within the time constraints under which I operate, to explain where the word gǎnlǎn 橄欖 ("olive") came from.

Although I haven't done thorough research on this subject, my summary findings at this point are roughly what I thought they would be, except for one big surprise.  First of all, I expected that gǎnlǎn 橄欖 would have come from some Southeast Asian word, since that is where Asian olives grow in abundance.  The word also has a Southeast Asian ring to it, as do other Chinese words that were borrowed from that region, such as the word for "betel" (ultimately from the Malayalam word vettila, or perhaps verilla), bīngláng 檳榔, which is linked with pinang, the Austronesian term for areca (also from Malayalam aṭaykka) nut.

Bear in mind that the word gǎnlǎn 橄欖 has been in Sinitic since at least the 3rd century AD and that, as one would expect for such a borrowed word, it may be written with different sets of characters:  e.g. gǎnyǎn 橄棪, gélǎn 葛[竹+覧], etc.  The Middle Sinitic reconstruction of gǎnlǎn 橄欖 was roughly kam-lam, the Old Sinitic reconstruction of gǎnyǎn 橄棪 was something like *kamriam and the Middle Sinitic reconstruction was something like kam-jiɛm, while the Middle Sinitic for gélǎn 葛[竹+覧] would have been approximately kat-lam.  (Cf. Shǐ Yǒuwéi 史有为, Yì wénhuà de shǐzhě — wàiláicí 异文化的使者 — 外来词 [Ambassadors of foreign culture == loan words], 1991, p.81.)

In short, I think that Mandarin gǎnlǎn 橄欖 may derive from an old Austronesian word whose reflex we see in Malay kĕnari ("Java almond"). What is surprising is that the scientific botanical species name for the Asian olive is Canarium, which comes from the same Malay word + New Latin -ium.

Well, that's all I have time for now on the matter of the etymology of gǎnlǎn 橄欖.  Perhaps someone else can make my preliminary investigations more precise.

Now, moving on to the real troublemaker, what can we do with huàhé 化核?  Let's just admit up front that it's an error.  [Update: This is incorrect; see in the comments below.]  It probably happened because the person who typed the Chinese was thinking of an olive as having a "pit", and somehow that went "nuclear" (hé 核 has both of these meanings and many more) and that got them thinking in chemical terms, so they typed huà 化, which is the first character of the Chinese word for "chemistry", viz., huàxué 化学.  But what they really were thinking of was huàké 化咳 (lit., "dissolve cough", i.e., "cough suppressant"), which is more often written as zhǐké 止咳 (lit., "stop cough").

For gāncǎo lǎn 甘草欖, Google Translate has "Airplane olive", while the other main online translation services offer only gibberish.  Google Translate's "Airplane olive" itself sounds very strange, but I gave them the benefit of the doubt and thought maybe it's because airlines hand them out on planes (I've actually had things like that given to me on Chinese airplanes).  But it turns out that Google Translate is right on the mark, since this type of lozenge / snack got its name from the habit of street vendors throwing them up to people who would drop money from balconies or open windows.

You can read about these "airplane olives" in EnglishCantonese, and Mandarin.

This next one sounds gruesome, but it is very easy to deal with:

ertóng yíngyǎng ròusōng 儿童营养肉松 ("children's nutritional dried meat floss")

yuánwèi 原味 ("original flavor")

This one also sounds awful, but is rather straightforward:

lěngdòng yóucài huā 冷凍油菜花 ("frozen canola / cole / rape flowers")

The English "leaf" perhaps more accurately describes the contents of the package, but if you look carefully, you can see that the florets are definitely included.  Cf. the lěngdòng yóucài huā 冷凍油菜花 ("frozen canola / cole / rape flowers") on Google Images.

Anyone who has lived in East Asia and Southeast Asia will be familiar with the drink known as "Pocari Sweat". I've drunk a few bottles myself, and mentioned it in the "Puke" post (see above).

When I first looked at the "Pet Sweat" bottles, I wasn't sure if this new drink was for humans or for pets.  Some of my Japanese friends weren't so sure either:

I have no idea!

It doesn't say it's for human beings.

It just says PET SWEAT and ペットスエット [VHM: pettosuetto] as you can see.

And "supply lost water (in your body)" and the picture of the dog.

If it's for human beings, it's a stupid ad because I wouldn't want to drink a sport drink that features a dog! It's very unappetizing.


I think this is for pets, probably for dogs because of the picture on the bottle, but it doesn't say so anywhere (at least from this angle).

My younger Japanese friends, on the other hand, were more certain that it's for dogs and cats.

Nathan Hopson provided this long and detailed disquisition on "PET SWEAT":

Pets. Definitely.

This is a product made by the Ōtsuka Group, purveyors of long-selling Pocari Sweat.

A Google Image search is enough to conclude that the product is "to replenish lost fluids," and "delivers fluids and minerals quickly with an electrolytic balance close to that of pets' [internal] fluids." What's more, it's good for pets' skin and, because it's made with oligosaccharide, their tummies, too. Oh, and good for a few cheap laughs, too, of course.

BTW, in looking through those cheap laughs, I came across this blog, and the laughter faded.

Japanese companies almost never get their English product branding and labelling right… Pet Sweat appears to be produced by Otsuka Group subsidiary Earth Biochemical Co., Ltd., which markets pet products under the slogan, “A beautiful communication with pets.” Given the poor quality of the English on the company’s website, perhaps it gives more priority to communicating with animals than with people.

Ha ha. Actually, Japanese marketers interested in selling their wares domestically give more priority to communicating with Japanese than with other people. The (culturally imperialist? simply myopic?) assumption of the translation blog that naming choices like Pocari Sweat and Pet Sweat represents the "stubbornness, mistrust, and arrogance… from working in the self-contained bubble of Japan’s mass media" and not that marketers' customers inhabit that self-same "self-contained bubble" is irksome. Marketers are smart people who study their audiences. Failure to understand the difference between domestic and international products before ridiculing them is unfair and narrow-minded.

This image of a "Soft France Sand" is a perfect example. It is a sandwich (abbreviated "sand" or サンド [sando]) on soft French bread (フランスパン [Furansu pan]). The product is intended entirely for the Japanese domestic audience, for whom this makes perfect sense. I was explaining to my mother during her recent trip to Japan that the "English" she saw around her was not intended for her. She wasn't convinced until we passed a restaurant selling "soft France sands." If it doesn't make sense, chances are it's not English, it's rōmaji, and it's not meant for us gaijin. Exactly why rōmaji is "a thing" (and I feel that more and more when I see simple transliteration of Japanese into rōmaji, but have no data to back this up) is a different question, but one that surely has a complex and multifaceted answer.

Another couple examples, from my Instagram account:

"Style Free" beer. My wife guesses this probably means that with this sugar-free (糖質ゼロ [tōshitsu zero]) beer you are "free" to maintain your "style," which can also mean a svelte and attractive body in Japanese. Sure, why not. This reminds me of the "Dog Free Cafe" I saw once many years ago — you were "free" to bring your dog. Wish I had a photo… In any case, it's a creative use of the language available.

"Poo" salon. Just down the street from Medousa salon, which might actually be tongue-in-cheek humor.

BTW, sifting through Instagram I came across this gem from Thailand that I had meant to share with you (maybe I did?): Star Back Cafe

That Star Back Cafe in Thailand really has chutzpah:  it's right next door to a genuine Starbucks!

[Thanks to Geoff Wade, Cecilia Segawa Seigle, Hiroko Sherry, Fangyi Cheng, Rebecca Fu, Miki Morita, and Jing Wang]


  1. Jerry Friedman said,

    February 23, 2015 @ 6:39 pm

    Olive pits and nuclei are denoted by the same word in Chinese because they're both little nuts or kernels, I imagine?

  2. Eric P Smith said,

    February 23, 2015 @ 7:17 pm

    @Jerry Friedman: I imagine so too. Indeed "nucleus" is a "little nut", Latin "nucula". Which suggests that the George W Bush pronunciation of "nuclear" as "nucular" is perhaps closer to the mark than he is often given credit for.

  3. Matt said,

    February 23, 2015 @ 8:40 pm

    It's a bit sobering to reflect on how many of those "fails" essentially amount to "since this foodstuff was named, a word that sounds a bit like it has come to mean 'gay'". (And the marketers of the Golden Gaytime at least are not just well aware of the issue, they have actually embraced it, relying on visual and verbal double entendres in their advertising to distinguish their ice-cream from the competition's.)

    Re "style free", note the similar product "all free" from Suntory. It looks like "free" has basically been liberated (heh) from phrases like "sugar-free" and "fat-free" and can now stand on its own, with the meaning "free of something undesirable understood implicitly or specified elsewhere", making it possible to combine with words like "style" etc. without attributing that absence to them. In other words, I think Nathan's wife is right, and let me add that I also vigorously agree with the point he makes about the use of Roman characters and English words by marketers in the main part of his post.

  4. Hugo said,

    February 24, 2015 @ 2:36 am

    The Megapussi is from Finland and pussi just means bag, and it's a big bag of crisps so they just added mega. You can also buy minipussi bags.

    Words ending in -i are often loanwords in Finnish, and if you look at the photo it also has the Swedish megapåse, so I suspect it comes from Swedish, which is an official language of Finland. Finland was part of Sweden for some 600 years so picked up a lot of loanwords.

    Looking a bit further, I learn påse is related to English purse, "reimburse, bursar, and Swedish börs (Stock Exchange or purse, according to Norstedts)".

    Going back to Finnish, the stock exchange is pörssi. Finnish doesn't really have the letter B and it often becomes P in older loanwords (eg. paroni=baron). Newer loans are more welcoming eg. bugi=[software] bug, baari=[drinks] bar.

  5. Ben Hemmens said,

    February 24, 2015 @ 5:19 am

    Just as long as nobody starts an olive-pit war, we're all fine.

  6. Linda said,

    February 24, 2015 @ 5:31 am

    I didn't know you could eat rape leaves. In the UK it's only grown for its seed, the main source of our vegetable oil. And the plant is called rape here.

  7. Rakau said,

    February 24, 2015 @ 5:56 am

    Referring to the use of the word "puke" , here in Aotearoa where Maori (a polynesian language) is widely used for place names, personal names and greetings as well as by 5% or so of the population, there is often confusion around meanings and pronounciation. So, for example, english speakers could misinterpret the word "puke" when written, to mean "to vomit" when in Maori it means a hill, a mound or a lump. The word has 2 syllables in Maori as opposed to the single syllable in english. Similarly, the word "kaka" in Maori means a dress, while in english it means "faeces" (in Aotearoa). I once heard a court clerk call a young Maori defendant into the court calling out his name, which was Puke, using the english pronounciation when his name was properly the 2 syllable Maori name, with a meaning completely different to the word called out by the court clerk.

  8. John Swindle said,

    February 24, 2015 @ 6:47 am

    If, as Hugo said, "pussi" means "bag" in Finnish and is "påse" in Swedish, related to English "purse," then surely both are also related to English "pussy."

  9. Terry Hunt said,

    February 24, 2015 @ 10:46 am

    With regard to the "Nuclear Licorice Lozenge", it is surely pertinent that the term 'pit' is used in the Nuclear Weapons industry to refer to the plutonium core (typically a polished sphere of the order of a foot in diameter) of a nuclear bomb.

  10. Vasha said,

    February 24, 2015 @ 1:28 pm

    The "Cemen Dip" is from Gama Foods, a British importer of Turkish products, so I imagine "cemen" is a misspelling of Turkish çemen meaning "cumin."

    I gotta say I don't find all this straining to find sophomoric interpretations of foreign names very funny either.

  11. Mark said,

    February 24, 2015 @ 1:33 pm

    As a quasi (i.e., cognitive) neuroscientist, a favorite from my local grocery.

  12. Christian Weisgerber said,

    February 24, 2015 @ 5:38 pm

    @Jerry Friedman
    Olive pits and nuclei are denoted by the same word in German, too (Kern).

    Regarding Megapussi, in notionally bilingual Canada you can find eateries called "Megabites" (there's one at the University of Toronto), which is an unfortunate name if you interpret it in French. Maybe I should move to an English-language country and open a chicken grill "Big Cocks".

  13. bratschegirl said,

    February 25, 2015 @ 9:55 am

    @Christian Weisgerber: A musical colleague was involved with the Madeira Bach Festival in the 1980s. TAP, the Portuguese airline, was a major sponsor. The rooster is a traditional national symbol. So said colleague reported attending a meeting where TAP unveiled their planned ad campaign relating to the coming Festival, featuring the tagline "Take a flying cock to Portugal."

  14. Nancy Friedman said,

    February 25, 2015 @ 4:56 pm

    That's clearly the genuine Poo salon, as opposed to the sham Poo.

  15. Rakau said,

    February 26, 2015 @ 1:59 am

    And in Te Reo Maori (because there are languages other than those of Europe and Asia) "poo" means night, although its pronounciation is not the same as poo in english. For that we would write "pu". It means, amongst other things, a gun.

  16. Bathrobe said,

    February 26, 2015 @ 11:39 pm

    Damn, I thought Pet Sweat was called that way because it comes in PET bottles.

  17. Michael Watts said,

    February 27, 2015 @ 5:51 am

    If, as Hugo said, "pussi" means "bag" in Finnish and is "påse" in Swedish, related to English "purse," then surely both are also related to English "pussy."

    Why? Etymonline suggests no relationship between English "purse" (< Latin bursa) and English "pussy" ([cat], origin unclear but common in germanic languages and known in slavic ones) or English "pussy" ([female genitals], most likely from the "cat" sense).

    I find their argument that "pussy" [female genitals] probably doesn't come from a very old word for "purse" fairly compelling:

    the absence of pussy in Grose and other early slang works argues against the vaginal sense being generally known before late 19c., as does its frequent use as a term of endearment in mainstream literature, as in:

    "What do you think, pussy?" said her father to Eva. [Harriet Beecher Stowe, "Uncle Tom's Cabin," 1852]

  18. Fluxor said,

    February 27, 2015 @ 11:11 am

    Now, moving on to the real troublemaker, what can we do with huàhé 化核? Let's just admit up front that it's an error.

    This is not an error at all. 化核 is a common word often seen on packaging of preserved fruits that had their pit removed. 化核 simply means pitless (化=to melt, as in 融化; 核=nuclei, pit, centre). Beside the pitless olives in the original post, there are also pitless preserved cherries (化核樱桃), pitless preserved plums (化核加应子、化核梅), etc. A quick image google search on any of these preserves, in Chinese, will yield a good deal of info.

    无核 (lit: no pit) or 去核 (lit: gone away, pit) are sometimes used instead of 化核.

  19. Victor Mair said,

    February 27, 2015 @ 2:16 pm


    Thanks very much for the good correction. I was thrown off by the lozenge and "airplane olive".

  20. John Swindle said,

    February 28, 2015 @ 3:35 am

    @Michael Watts: You're probably right! I was thrown off by Merriam-Webster.

  21. Victor Mair said,

    February 28, 2015 @ 7:51 am

    From the Free Dictionary:


    [1875–80; perhaps < Dutch, a diminutive of poes vulva, akin to Low German pūse vulva, Old English pusa bag; see purse] Random House Kernerman Webster's College Dictionary, © 2010 K Dictionaries Ltd. Copyright 2005, 1997, 1991 by Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. ===== Here's the first part of the Online Etymology Dictionary entry: ===== slang for "female pudenda," 1879, but probably older; perhaps from Old Norse puss "pocket, pouch" (compare Low German puse "vulva"), but perhaps instead from the cat word (see pussy (n.1)) on notion of "soft, warm, furry thing;" compare French le chat, which also has a double meaning, feline and genital. Earlier uses are difficult to distinguish from pussy (n.1), as in: The word pussie is now used of a woman [Philip Stubbes, "The Anatomie of Abuses," 1583] ===== I do not think that the following quotation is relevant, because the father would hardly be referring to her in the sense of c*nt. ===== "What do you think, pussy?" said her father to Eva. [Harriet Beecher Stowe, "Uncle Tom's Cabin," 1852] ===== He must be referring to her in the other sense of "pussy", as diminutive of "puss" (cat), a term of endearment for a girl or woman that goes back to the 1580s.

  22. Alex said,

    March 7, 2015 @ 3:06 pm

    The shrimp one seems to be Shrimp to Peel or Shrimp Peelers. Peel=Crack.

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